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‘It’s definitely going to be emotional’: Washington State seventh-year receiver Renard Bell anticipating first game back after missing 2021 season

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – As he walked through the doors of Washington State’s football facility on the first morning of fall camp, Renard Bell felt an overwhelming rush of “happiness and joy,” which brought him to tears.

“Before I even made it to the locker room, I just started crying,” he said Aug. 4. “All of my emotions started hitting me. Man, it was a blessing to be back out here again.”

Bell will start for the Cougars at slot receiver when the team opens its season at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Idaho. It’ll be his first game since Dec. 19, 2020. Bell missed all of last season with an ACL injury sustained in summer 2021 and was granted a medical redshirt, allowing him to return for a seventh year at WSU.

If his first preseason practice prompted such a powerful response, how will Bell react when he shows up at Gesa Field ahead of his first game back?

“I’ll have to keep my emotions in check, stay level-headed for the game,” he said recently. “Hopefully, it hits me before I get to the stadium, so I can get it all out.

“It’s definitely going to be emotional. It’s definitely going to be projected. I can’t wait for it. I know it’s going to hit.”

Bell has returned to form and is providing veteran guidance for the new-look Cougars. He’s a team captain and a standout playmaker – and, of course, WSU’s most experienced player.

The 24-year-old has taken part in 43 career games for WSU – just 13 shy of tying the program record for career appearances, set last season by linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers.

The only seventh-year player in Cougars history, Bell has hauled in touchdown passes from quarterbacks Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew, Anthony Gordon, Jayden de Laura – and now, perhaps beginning Saturday, Cameron Ward. Bell has played under three coaching staffs. He has four years of background in the Air Raid offense, starring in the system earlier in his career under coach Mike Leach. The Cougars’ first-year staff installed a version of the Air Raid this off-season.

“It’s good to have ’Nard – he’s been here 20 years – out there and kinda showing them how it’s done,” receivers coach Joel Filani said.

The 5-foot-9, 173-pound slotback has amassed 1,656 yards and 16 touchdowns on 147 receptions in a Cougars uniform. His three fellow starting receivers have registered a combined 1,067 yards and eight touchdowns on 92 receptions as Cougars.

“I’m able to give back to the younger guys and tell them everything I’ve experienced on and off the field,” Bell said. “Just constantly helping them and letting them know, ‘Yeah, I’m older than you, but we’re still boys.’ Being able to do that, I know that I’m accepted, even though I’m way older than them. I appreciate that a lot.”

Bell enrolled at WSU in 2016 – the Cougars’ current freshman players were 12 years old when Bell first arrived in Pullman.

He took a redshirt as a true freshman, yet remembers that first season “like it was last year.” Bell probably wouldn’t be a Cougar today had he not sustained an injury before WSU’s Week 3 matchup with Idaho that year.

“They were about to burn my redshirt” because of a teammate’s injury, he remembered. “Then, boom, I dislocated my elbow on Thursday (during practice).”

Bell captured a starting job in 2017 and played a key role for the Cougars each of the next three seasons. He was one of the Pac-12’s most productive receivers in the coronavirus-affected 2020 season and chose to accept an extra year of eligibility, granted by the NCAA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bell had obvious all-conference potential entering what should have been his final collegiate season in 2021.

But he tore his ACL about a month before fall camp began and spent the next eight months recovering and rediscovering his passion for the sport. The injury took a significant mental toll.

“I’ll be honest, I couldn’t be around football for a period of time,” he said. “Going into surgery, I remember watching a lot of my film, thinking about what could have been. Coming out of surgery, I didn’t want to look at it, I didn’t want to see it or hear it. … I was in a really dark place and it was hard to get out of it.”

For a while, he turned his attention away from the game, leaning on other hobbies “keep my mind away from the negativity,” he said. But Bell began to mend his relationship with football during the season, which he spent reflecting on his past while taking an active role in teaching the Cougars’ younger players.

“Everything I went through made me realize how much I love the game,” he said.

He thought about his childhood and the uncertainty early in his life about whether he’d play sports.

At a young age, Bell was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, a rare heart condition that can be damaging – fatal in 2%-3% of cases, according to the UK National Health Service – if not identified and treated properly. Bell recalls receiving medication and having his heart monitored for several years during his childhood, up until the age of 9.

“When my mom told me that story, it made me kinda look at life differently, approaching everything positively and enjoying the day,” Bell said. “Doctors said I wasn’t going to be able to play sports. So, I just thought of that and how far I came. … A lot of people didn’t believe in me. When I tore my ACL, I know a lot of people were like, ‘He’s not gonna be able to come back from this.’ Every day fueled me to keep going and be the best I can for that day, because I know what I’m capable of.”

Bell used the 2021 season to develop his “vocal leadership style.” He coached his teammates from the sidelines and found inspiration in “knowing that my advice is still wanted and needed.”

He never considered leaving WSU.

“I don’t want to leave anything up for chance,” Bell said. “I want to control my own destiny.

“I would’ve been in the same situation if I left – new staff, new offense. It was in my best interest to stay with all my friends, my brothers. I don’t really like leaving and going different places. I like finishing where I started.”

Pullman has become home for the Los Angeles native. “It feels like a family everywhere you go,” he said.

“I’m still shocked when people call out my name in public.”

When Bell leaves, he’ll have two degrees – one in social sciences, another in advertising – and a reputation as a staunch Cougar who will long live in WSU’s record books.

Before then, Bell has “something to prove.”

“I’ve been waiting to get at some of these teams for a long time,” he said, specifically mentioning Southern Cal – Bell grew up “5 minutes” away from USC’s campus.

Coach Jake Dickert and offensive coordinator Eric Morris both have noted Bell’s tireless effort throughout the preseason. Sometimes, they have to reel him in.

“Nardy had something taken away from him and he realized how much football meant to him, so he doesn’t take it for granted,” Morris said. “I had to pull him back (at one practice) and say, ‘Hey, calm down in this period. You’re running way too much, too fast. Your legs are gonna be shot.’ ”

Naturally, he’s eager to be playing at full power again after grinding through a long process to find his old form. Bell worked back into the Cougars’ lineup during spring camp, but was displeased with his performance as he tried to tighten up his routes and improve his burst off the line. He has since restored his speed and cutting abilities, and gained 10 pounds of muscle.

“He’s not just running the way he used to run, but he looks physically different,” Dickert said. “That’s a big-time playmaker that we have back in the fold.”

Expect an energetic Bell to be a primary target in WSU’s pass-heavy Air Raid offense and to factor into the Cougars’ return game when he makes his long-awaited return to action Saturday.

“I can just feel it in the air,” he said. “It’s gonna be something special.”